I have been thinking and talking a lot about accessibility this year. As teachers, we want our students to be successful in our classrooms, in our schools and centres, in whatever their goals are. But how do we do this? Concretely, what do we do to ensure that this happens?
For many, the quick answer is through differentiation – when we tailor instruction to meet the individual needs of our students.
With differentiation, we get to know our students needs and/or learning styles so we can create lessons, activities, or environments that cater specifically to those needs.
Focusing solely on differentiation can be problematic on a variety of levels:
Where does accessibility come in? Well, it doesn’t. At least, not right away. In fact, I’d even argue that with differentiation, we are looking more at accommodation than at accessibility.
When we train our focus on accessibility, we can use frameworks like Universal Design to anticipate possible obstacles to learning in our lessons and environments and then design them away before the students can encounter them.
I think that both universal design and differentiation have similar motivations:
Their differences lie within their approaches.
With differentiation, we respond directly to individual needs. But we have to wait until these needs are presented to us in order to respond so it is a reactive approach.
With universal design, we anticipate obstacles and get rid of them so that the largest number of people can access the learning. It is not directly focused on the individual but on the collective, yet in a way that honours the individual.
I found differentiation exhausting as a teacher. Mainly because so much of the work had to happen once I met my students. When I started to move my focus towards creating learning environments and situations with multiple access points from the get-go, before I even met my students, I found that I was actually better at meeting individual needs than when I was working so hard trying to differentiate based on them! It was still a lot of work but much of the work could happen before I was ‘live’ with the students, which made things much easier.
As I wrote at the top, I have been thinking and talking a lot about these ideas lately. How we widen access to learning – especially in a context like adult education where we may only be with our students for a short while – is becoming increasingly important for me and the people I work with. I see accessibility being directly tied to empathy and, ultimately, respect for our students and their learning experiences.
Here are two videos I made recently based on some workshops I gave this year, some on my own and one with my colleague Sandra Laine of the RECIT service national, domaine des langues.
Part 1 answers the question Why Universal Design for Learning?:
Part 2 answers the question What is Universal Design for Learning? And it addresses some differences between UDL and Differentiation.
These videos were originally created for an article I wrote with Emilie Bowles, RECIT regional service to general adult education, for a special edition of the Carrefour FGA newsletter on Universal Design for Learning (pp. 11-13)
For more discussion about UDL and Differentiation:
About a month ago, I was invited to speak about Universal Design for Learning (UDL) at an online conference during the Semaine de la Formation à Distance, organized by FADIO. That week is happening this week and I presented yesterday.
As you can see in the tweet below, I presented in French. I called my presentation La CUA et la FAD: tenir compte de l’humain à travers l’écran (Loosely translated as UDL and distance education: considering the human through the screen. Link to tweet: )
I had two goals:
I actually had a third goal – it was to not explicitly present the frameworks in detail. I wanted to allow participants to experience learning that was designed using the frameworks. I decided that anyone could go read the frameworks if they wanted more detail and so I included them as extra resources.
I used a website to house all of my materials as well as the instructions for the experiential parts of the presentation. Those activities were sandwiched in between different parts of my presentation and feedback conversations.
So, how did it go?
First off, I was out of my comfort zone on a few different levels.
To add to that, there were two uncomfortable moments:
I didn’t manage those conversations well. I think that working entirely in French on an unfamiliar platform didn’t help. Luckily, they didn’t last all that long and I don’t think they detracted all that much from the rest of the session.
Back to how did it go?….I received verrrrrrrry mixed reviews!
Ranging from – this remains very superficial. Where are your schema and frameworks? Do you have any meat to add to your presentation? To this:
(Loose translation: The presentation and activities that Tracy proposed offered us different ways to sustain participant engagement, to act and express ourselves, and to access information. A true demonstration of UDL. Link to tweet)
Much of the response I received was positive and there were also others who left during the presentation.
So. What do I take away from these mixed responses?
I believe that the best way to learn about new classroom practice is to experience new classroom practice. I have seen how this kind of experiential learning can have an impact on practice many times. But that does not mean that is the only way I need to interact with participants.
I could say, oh well, you can’t please everyone. BUT. Actually, that wouldn’t be very UDL of me, would it?
For some people, they need to see those frameworks before experiencing them in order to experience them and make connections. For others, they make the connection to theory through the experience. And for others, they might make the connection to theory afterwards. All of this lies in the area of motivation and engagement- the Why am I learning this? principle of UDL.
I had placed the frameworks in an extra resources section of the website and included the option of visiting the extra resources section when participants completed activities but did not offer them as a specific choice during one of the activities.
In my presentation, I talked about how the teacher’s task is to create an environment where instruction of content is well-balanced with learner needs. I discovered that I didn’t quite do that here.
Each time I work with teachers and other educators, I learn something new. In the future, I am going to explicitly offer detailed views of frameworks as a choice during the small group activities.
(And I am also going to reflect on managing uncomfortable conversations, regardless of the setting.)
A place for everyone.
I taught a multi-level French Second Language course a number of years ago. The students were following a mix of Pre-secondary through Secondary five programs – and I had one student studying math. The students were part of a special program offered through Tewatohnhi’saktha and Nova Career Centre and they had one morning of French class a week. The work was immense. And there was one French class a week.
When I think about multiplying the work 3, 4, or 5 times a week, I start to shake. Yet this is what many teachers in Adult Education in Quebec do on a regular basis. The longer I work in Adult Ed, I am seeing that individualized classrooms are more the norm than the exception. I am humbled by teachers like Janie Lamoureux and Karine Jacques (and so many more!) who strive to make their classrooms work for all of their students, regardless of level, background, or course they are taking.
…& they do this through flexible learning environments.
But of course, flexible learning is SO much more than just a pretty space! And this is what Janie & Karine spoke about at the first après-cours for individualized teachers of the year, November 6, 2018.
Avi Spector, Véronique Bernard, and I decided to create an online community for Individualized teachers so they could have a place to meet with others and talk about the unique challenges and opportunities that come with an individualized classroom.
The theme for the first meeting was changing things up in the classroom and I think the best thing we did was to hand the content over to two master teachers – Karine Jacques & Janie Lamoureux. They spoke about how their flexible classroom environments help their students as well as their teaching. The meeting was completely bilingual and it was great to see the chat box blow up in both English and en français!
Their presentation/conversation was nothing short of inspiring. Below is a video of the meeting and some links to other resources from the après-cours. Enjoy – and I hope to see you at our next meeting! We will announce the date soon.
I just got back from a rapid-fire three days at the annual #recitqc gathering. It is called the Formation conjointe et collaborative, which roughly translates to joint, collaborative training. Each year, it is three days where about 150 consultants in the recit network come from across Quebec to learn together. We organize workshops for and with each other and I love the conversations I get to have with my colleagues from all across the province about how we support teachers in their work.
I also love the flexibility of the event. There are tons of workshops and social events scheduled, yet when I need a mental break, there are also many quiet spots scattered around the event venue where I can go to take a break or work quietly alone or with some colleagues.
It’s within this flexible structure that I can really feed and develop my own competencies as a consultant.
This year I had the opportunity to experience the FCC with a new colleague. We worked together with two others to create a flexible workshop that invited participants to think and talk beyond the new equipment that is coming into our centres under the rubric of the Digital Action Plan for Education in Quebec. It is easy to get caught up in the new, shiny tools so we invited participants to ask each other – what else is this digital action plan allowing us to do? How is teaching changing? How is learning changing?
Of special interest to me is how our teaching and learning environments – our classrooms – are set up to support competency development in our students (and ourselves!). We decided to include a standing table in our session and it helped to provide a welcome break from sitting as well as to redistribute the noise from multiple conversations across the space.
We added a standing table to our workshop. Let's do this more often! #recitqc #qcspace @a_spector @Kish_Gue @MaEve_SteCroix Merci Marie-Ève pour avoir coupé les morceaux de bois!! pic.twitter.com/nJeNgjl1o8
— Tracy Rosen (@tracyrosen) October 2, 2018
As I wrote earlier, I was able to benefit from the flexible learning environment at the FCC. Being able to find quiet spaces to think at different times helped me from getting overwhelmed by the activity and noise of many people learning together. Having a conversation station at the standing table in our session also allowed us to have a conversation above the noise of the other conversations in the room, which made communication so much easier.
How can we create similar conditions in our classrooms? I ask that question in this video (French & English versions) (Merci, Marie-Ève, pour la super traduction!)
If you are interested in pursuing these lines of questioning, all of what we did, including these videos as well as feedback from participants, will always be available at this website.
A recent edsurge article talks about how the race to buy fancy furniture is turning flexible classrooms into a fad.
What then happens is instead of designing classrooms that positively impact students, we are decorating classrooms, celebrating the new, and then moving on to the next shiny thing. Pinterest-pretty classrooms bring instant gratification, but little else.
from: How Furniture and Flexible Seating Is Turning Classroom Design Into a Fad by Robert Dillon, Jan 4, 2018, on EdSurge
And that is true.
As I like to say – flexible classrooms are so much more than just a pretty space.
But what is good pedagogy? Even the term pedagogy is thrown around so much that its become jargon.
I think that terms like pedagogy and ideas like good teaching and learning are fluid. My belief is that good teaching and learning need to be based on theory, yet are then made very personal as they relate to each teacher’s classroom and practice.
It is no secret to those who follow my writing here or who have been to my classroom or workshops, that I define ‘good pedagogy’ as access to learning for our students. And for me, that is closely connected to how we design our learning environments.
The way I see it, it comes down to these things:
As long as we keep our goals in mind when we begin to design our learning environments we are off to a good start – and these goals need to be strongly intertwined with whatever program goals we are committed to teach
Then, if we ensure that the largest number of our students can access these goals we are off to an even better start. We can do that by providing diverse resources, diverse ways for students to see the course goals, and examples of how we can achieve these goals (processes and strategies). Actually, it is not enough to just provide them. Explicitly teaching students how to access all of this (and/or getting out of their way when they figure it out!) is an important step.
I can’t just expect success to happen. I explicitly design for it.
Build it and they will come? No. We need to change the conjunction –> Build it SO they will come.
My ideas are heavily influenced by this article by CAST as well as the experiences of teachers across Quebec, some are seen here: bit.ly/qcspace and on PD Mosaic – UDL + flexible environments. A special thanks to Avi Spector, of course – we explore these ideas together a lot!